The Dora Queen will offer the thrill and nostalgia of a riverboat cruise on Lake Dora.
Photos: Douglas Tyler
On any given day, catamarans, sailboats and other vessels glide across Lake Dora.
Now, they’ll share the lake with royalty.
The Dora Queen, a 1920s paddlewheel riverboat replica, is docked near Wooton Park in Tavares. Her majesty hasn’t taken her maiden voyage, but soon passengers will step aboard and experience a level of elegance, class and comfort that only a queen can deliver.
The double-decker, 80-foot-long riverboat will take passengers on afternoon cruises from Wednesday through Friday and sunset cruises from Friday to Sunday. Owners Brian and Brandy Herron, of Mount Dora, hope to begin operating in July or August and are awaiting one final U.S. Coast Guard inspection. The coronavirus outbreak has slowed the certification process.
“This isn’t a narrated tour boat; it’s a pleasure cruise,” says Brian, who has a captain’s license. “We want everyone to relax and enjoy being on the lake.”
The Dora Queen, powered by two 250-horsepower engines, was constructed with comfort in mind. High-top bar tables and patio love seats await passengers on the top deck, which is covered by an overhead canopy to stave off the hot Florida sun. It’s a little cooler on the bottom deck, where passengers can sit in an enclosed, air-conditioned dining room. Both levels feature bars, lounge-style seating and speakers that deliver top-quality sound.
The boat is aesthetically pleasing, too, with red ornamental railing and color-changing LED lights on the paddlewheel and boat perimeter.
City Administrator John Drury says the riverboat will complement other Tavares attractions such as seaplane rides and steam-powered train rides.
Operating the Dora Queen will be a full-time job for Brian and Brandy and represents a career about-face. Brian formerly owned a ServiceMaster franchise, which provides homeowners with disaster restoration, while Brandy was a marketing representative for a medical imaging company and a former schoolteacher.
“We were both looking for a life change,” Brandy says.
The opportunity came several years ago when they discovered that the Contessa, the boat where they had their wedding rehearsal dinner in 2001, was sitting idle at Trident Pontoons in Tavares. The Contessa formerly took passengers through Dead River and into Lake Harris.
They purchased the boat in 2017. Brian and Brandy, avid boaters who live on Lake Gertrude, wanted to allow locals and tourists alike to experience Lake Dora’s beauty in a whole new way.
“We thought an old-style paddlewheel boat would be perfect for Lake Dora,” Brian says. “There has never been anything like that offered on this lake. People can enjoy the water, have some drinks and listen to music.”
“When it becomes operational, the Dora Queen will be an outstanding enhancement of and complement to our already outstanding downtown business community. From Seaplane rides, lessons and charter flights to Kayak and Paddleboard adventures; from waterfront Hotels to dining and entertainment; from country music to classic rock and roll; from a one of a kind wedding venue located literally on the water (the Pavilion on the Lake) to fine wine and cigars; from seaplane fly ins to antique boat show events, from vintage trains and now to a vintage paddlewheel boat experience, Tavares has it all! Being able to step aboard a modern, clean, safe and professionally operated vessel of this type with the “old world” look and feel of a bygone vintage period of time, while cruising beautiful Lake Dora dining, enjoying a fine cocktail and listening to the sounds of your favorite music playing in the background or enjoying a unique and intimate wedding party experience with close friends and family will provide a tremendous new experience for our residents and visitors and will add great value to the already robust and attractive amenities of our downtown waterfront entertainment district.”
–Bob Tweedie, economic development director for the city of Tavares
They hired Robbie Cunningham, owner of Trident Pontoons, to refurbish the Contessa into the Dora Queen because of his impressive credentials. During the past 22 years, Robbie has built 800 boats, some of which now operate in faraway places such as South America, Europe and Africa. He’s also the man who built the Contessa in the late 1990s, as well as tour boats that take passengers through the Dora Canal.
The project took 2½ years to complete. Robbie kept some parts of the Contessa intact, including the wheelhouse where the captain navigates the boat, the paddlewheel and the red ornamental railing that wraps around the top deck.
“The Dora Queen is essentially a brand-new boat,” Robbie says. “However, since some parts of the Contessa were in really good shape, we decided to use them.”
By the time the project was finished, the Dora Queen ended up significantly larger than the Contessa. It features a second bathroom, a wraparound walkway on the top deck and a larger dining area. The Dora Queen is certified to hold 134 passengers, although the Herrons might limit capacity to 100 passengers for comfort. The Contessa held 49 passengers.
“I think I was excited as Brian and Brandy to see that boat come together,” Robbie says. “The Dora Queen is a showpiece, and I’m glad to have it operating on Lake Dora.”
While the boat will always dock at Wooton Park, the Herrons occasionally will pick up passengers from the 4th Avenue boat docks in Mount Dora. The weekday afternoon cruises will last 90 minutes, while the weekend sunset cruises featuring live bands will run for two hours. The boat also will be available for rentals for private parties, birthdays, rehearsal dinners and family reunions.
“For private events, we have a galley, so caterers can come aboard,” Brian says.
The Herrons plan to conduct special cruises and serve hors d’oeuvres for seasonal events such as Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. They also may offer a “locals day” when Lake County residents pay a discounted price.
“We’re thinking about selling an annual pass,” Brian says. “We’re going to learn as we go. This is completely new to us. We’ll see what works and what doesn’t.”
Their 16-year-old son, Braeden, will also work on the boat. They have received plenty of positive feedback about their new business venture.
“A lot of people have asked us why we don’t have something like this already,” Brandy says. “They want a new and exciting way to see Lake Dora. Tavares has become an entertainment district, and that’s why I think our boat will fit in nicely. We’re like a party bus on the water.”
City officials are excited to see that party bus get moving.
“This is a one-of-a-kind attraction, and we’re proud to have it based in our city,” Tavares Councilwoman Lou Buigas says. “Having the Dora Queen will help promote us as a destination, and it builds on our history, our quality of life and entertainment options.”
The Dora Queen
Wednesday-Friday afternoon cruises
Adult (ages 13+) $34
Children (ages 2-12) $24
Friday-Sunday evening cruises
Adult (ages 13+) $39
Children (ages 2-12) $29